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Who Cares? Why We Sued Ben & Jerry's

Splashed across the Ben & Jerry’s website are cartoon-like pictures of happy cows romping in green pastures.

There’s a reason those cows are depicted by drawings, not actual photos—most of the real, live cows whose milk and cream are used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream products are crammed into dark, filthy barns for most of their short lives.

Ben & Jerry’s goes to great lengths to create the perception that the Unilever-owned company “cares” deeply about the farmers who supply milk and cream for the brand, the cows raised on Vermont dairy farms, and the state of Vermont’s environment.

The company’s “Caring Dairy” program sounds like a dream-come-true for Vermont’s dairy farmers and dairy cows.

But it’s more like a nightmare, for the cows, Vermont’s environment and consumers who care about animal welfare.

As we state in the lawsuit we filed this week against Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s markets its products:

. . . as being made from milk produced by “happy cows” raised in “Caring Dairies,” leading consumers to believe that the products are produced using animal-raising practices that are more humane than those used on regular factory-style, mass production dairy operations.

In contrast to Unilever’s representations, the products include milk that comes from cows raised in regular factory-style, mass-production dairy operations, also known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” or “Large Farm Operations”—not in the special “Caring Dairies” emphasized in Unilever’s marketing.

As we reported last year, our testing revealed that many samples of popular Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors, in the U.S. and in Europe, contain traces of Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. We see that as a sign that the brand falls far short of its claims of social and environmental responsibility.

Unilever spends nearly $9 billion a year on advertising, second only to Proctor & Gamble. We think the company should spend less on misleading product claims, and invest more in helping Vermont dairy farmers transition to organic and regenerative practices that actually support those claims.

‘Caring Dairies’ program nothing more than a scam

Like any successful brand, Ben & Jerry’s knows that animal welfare tops the list of issues people care about. Hence, the creation of a program—“Caring Dairy”—intended to make consumers believe that Ben & Jerry’s “cares,” too.

But it’s all smoke and mirrors. Here’s why.

On its “Caring Dairy Standards” website page, the company lists a set of standards it says are required for all dairy farms that supply Ben & Jerry’s.

Thanks to the work of Regeneration Vermont, we know that Ben & Jerry’s sources all of its milk and cream through a cooperative based in St. Albans City, Vermont. Fewer than 25 percent of the approximately 360 farms that deliver milk and cream to the St. Albans co-op meet the “Caring Dairy” standards. But when farmers deliver their milk to the co-op, it’s all mixed together—the co-op doesn’t separate the milk delivered by a “Caring Dairy” program participant from the milk of other dairy farms. So even if some of the milk comes from a farm that actually meets those standards, Ben & Jerry’s can’t truthfully claim that all of their milk and cream come from dairies that meet the company’s “Caring Dairy” standards.

Advertising, even the false kind, pays

So you, the consumer, when you visit the Ben & Jerry’s website and see pretty pictures and a long list of standards the company says all of its farmers meet, are being duped.

All that talk of “Caring Dairies” is there to make consumers feel good about buying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

It’s pretty much all a lie. Especially when you consider that over the years, some members of the St. Albans co-op have been fined for violations of environmental laws, including one that illegally expanded its operation near the Missisquoi River Basin, which drains into the already heavily pollutted Missisquoi Bay.

In fact, the dairy industry is Vermont’s biggest polluter, according to Regeneration Vermont, in part because the state’s conventional dairy farms feed GMO corn, heavily sprayed with pesticides such as atrazine, metolachlor and glyphosate, to dairy cows.

So when Ben & Jerry’s says it’s “on a mission to make great ice cream that respects the farmer and their farmworks, the planet and the cow,” don’t believe it.

Ben & Jerry’s is on a mission to spin a false and misleading story about a company that has a lousy track record when it comes to sourcing ingredients from socially and environmentally responsible producers.

Consumers who care about their health, the environment and animal welfare would do better to buy organic brands from companies that don't source glyphosate-sprayed ingredients and that do source from dairies that meet organic standards.

Happy National Ice Cream Month!